If you've ever studied the history of photography, you've inevitably encountered Eadweard Muybridge’s experiments from the 1870s, which used new innovations in photography to answer a simple question: When a horse trots, do all four of its hooves ever leave the ground at once? The question piqued the curiosity of Leland Stanford, former governor of California and co-founder of Stanford University. And so, as Colin Marshall previously noted here, he "called on an English photographer named Eadweard Muybridge, known for his work in such then-cutting-edge subfields as time-lapse and stereography, and tasked him with figuring it out. Using a series of cameras activated by trip wires as the horse trotted past, Muybridge proved that all four of its hooves do indeed leave the ground, winning Stanford the wager." You can watch the footage resulting from that experiment below.
Above, you can also see the strange new afterlife of that same footage. According to the National Institute of Mental Health:
For the first time, [Muybridge’s] movie has been encoded in – and then played back from – DNA in living cells. Scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health say it is a major step toward a “molecular recorder” that may someday make it possible to get read-outs, for example, of the changing internal states of neurons as they develop. Neuroscientist Seth Shipman, Ph.D., of Harvard Medical School, explains the study.
Ultimately, this experiment demonstrates the "power to turn living cells into digital data warehouses," writes Wired. Shipman does a good job of unpacking the study. Read more about it over at this NIH website.
An explosion in recent years of so-called “ruin porn” photography has sparked an inevitable backlash for its supposed fetishization of urban decay and economic devastation. Documenting, as theorist Brian McHale writes, the “ruin in the wake of the deindustrialization of North American ‘Rust Belt’ cities” like Detroit, “ruin porn” shows us a world that only a few decades ago, thrived in a post-war economic boom that seemed like it might go on forever. Our morbid fascination with images from the death of American manufacturing offers a rich field for sociological inquiry. But when scientists look over what has happened to so much of the architecture from the early to mid-twentieth century, they’ve mostly had one very pressing question:
What is going on with the concrete?
Or more specifically, why do structures built only a few years ago look like they’ve been weathering the elements for centuries, when buildings thousands of years old, like many parts of the Pantheon or Trajan’s Markets in Rome, look like they’re only a few years old? The concrete structures of the Roman Empire, writes Nicole Davis at The Guardian, “are still standing more than 1,500 years after the last centurion snuffed it.” Roman concrete was a phenomenal feat of ancient engineering that until recently had stumped scientists who studied its durability. The Romans themselves “were aware of the virtues of their concrete, with Pliny the Elder waxing lyrical in his Natural History that it is ‘impregnable to the waves and every day stronger.”
The mystery of the Roman concrete recipe has finally been revealed. Researchers at the University of Utah have just published a study in American Mineralogist showing how the compound of “volcanic ash, lime (calcium oxide), seawater and lumps of volcanic rock” actually did, as Pliny claimed, become stronger over time, through the very action of those waves. “Seawater that seeped through the concrete,” notes Davis, “dissolved the volcanic crystals and glasses, with aluminous tobermorite and phillipsite crystalizing in their place.” These new crystals reinforce the concrete, making it more impervious to the elements. Modern concrete, “by contrast… is not supposed to change after it hardens—meaning any reactions with the material cause damage.” (The short video above explains the process in brief.)
The recent study builds on previous work conducted by lead author, University of Utah geologist Marie Jackson. In 2014, Jackson, then at the University of California, recreated the Roman concrete recipe and discovered one of the minerals within it that makes it superior to the modern stuff. But it took a couple more years before she and her colleagues figured out the role of seawater on forming the rare crystals. Now, they are recommending that builders begin using Roman concrete in the near future for seawalls and other marine structures. The research “opens up a completely new perspective for how concrete can be made,” says Jackson. “What we consider corrosion processes can actually produce extremely beneficial mineral cement and lead to continued resilience, in fact, enhanced perhaps resilience over time.”
As we increasingly turn our postmodern gaze toward the failures of postwar industrialization–toward not only crumbling cities but crumbling dams and bridges–one secret for building infrastructure that can last for centuries comes to us not from an algorithm or an AI but from an ancient recipe combining the primeval forces of volcanoes and ocean waves.
Or you could turn to song. Army of Lovers, the Crypts!, and the Deedle Deedle Dees have all written songs in celebration of this brilliant woman, the first female Nobel Laureate and only person in history to have been awarded Nobel prizes in two different sciences.
(Her lead-lined coffin, forbidden studies, and romance with fellow physicist and husband Pierre are the stuff from which golden lyrics are spun…)
Or you could watch the TED-Ed animation above, written and narrated by Dr. Shohini Ghose, Physics Professor and Director of Wilfrid Laurier University’s Centre for Women in Science.
Ghose counterbalances the tantalizing biographical tidbits of the world’s most famous female scientist with her actual contributions to the fields of oncology, technology, medicine, and nuclear physics.
And do remember to put down the sparklers and potato salad for a moment in silent recognition that this July 4th marks the 83rd anniversary of Mme. Curie’s death from aplastic anemia, the result of prolonged exposure to radiation.
I’ve never quite understood why the phrase “revisionist history” became purely pejorative. Of course, it has its Orwellian dark side, but all knowledge has to be revised periodically, as we acquire new information and, ideally, discard old prejudices and narrow frames of reference. A failure to do so seems fundamentally regressive, not only in political terms, but also in terms of how we value accurate, interesting, and engaged scholarship. Such research has recently brought us fascinating stories about previously marginalized people who made significant contributions to scientific discovery, such as NASA's “human computers,” portrayed in the book Hidden Figures, then dramatized in the film of the same name.
Likewise, the many women who worked at Bletchley Park during World War II—helping to decipher encryptions like the Nazi Enigma Code (out of nearly 10,000 codebreakers, about 75% were women)—have recently been getting their historical due, thanks to “revisionist” researchers. And, as we noted in arecent post, we might not know much, if anything, about silent film star Hedy Lamarr’s significant contributions to wireless, GPS, and Bluetooth technology were it not for the work of historians like Richard Rhodes. These few examples, among many, show us a fuller, more accurate, and more interesting view of the history of science and technology, and they inspire women and girls who want to enter the field, yet have grown up with few role models to encourage them.
We can add to the pantheon of great women in science the name Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, the daughter of Romantic poet Lord Byron. Lovelace has been renowned, as Hank Green tells us in the video at the top of the post, for writing the first computer program, “despite living a century before the invention of the modern computer.” This picture of Lovelace has been a controversial one. “Historians disagree,” writes prodigious mathematician Stephen Wolfram. “To some she is a great hero in the history of computing; to others an overestimated minor figure.”
Wolfram spent some time with “many original documents” to untangle the mystery. “I feel like I’ve finally gotten to know Ada Lovelace,” he writes, “and gotten a grasp on her story. In some ways it’s an ennobling and inspiring story; in some ways it’s frustrating and tragic.” Educated in math and music by her mother, Anne Isabelle Milbanke, Lovelace became acquainted with mathematics professor Charles Babbage, the inventor of a calculating machine called the Difference Engine, “a 2-foot-high hand-cranked contraption with 2000 brass parts.” Babbage encouraged her to pursue her interests in mathematics, and she did so throughout her life.
Widely acknowledged as one of the forefathers of computing, Babbage eventually corresponded with Lovelace on the creation of another machine, the Analytical Engine, which “supported a whole list of possible kinds of operations, that could in effect be done in arbitrarily programmed sequence.” When, in 1842, Italian mathematician Louis Menebrea published a paper in French on the Analytical Engine, “Babbage enlisted Ada as translator,” notes the San Diego Supercomputer Center's Women in Science project. “During a nine-month period in 1842-43, she worked feverishly on the article and a set of Notes she appended to it. These are the source of her enduring fame.” (You can read her translation and notes here.)
In the course of his research, Wolfram pored over Babbage and Lovelace’s correspondence about the translation, which reads “a lot like emails about a project might today, apart from being in Victorian English.” Although she built on Babbage and Menebrea’s work, “She was clearly in charge” of successfully extrapolating the possibilities of the Analytical Engine, but she felt “she was first and foremost explaining Babbage’s work, so wanted to check things with him.” Her additions to the work were very well-received—Michael Faraday called her “the rising star of Science”—and when her notes were published, Babbage wrote, “you should have written an original paper.”
Unfortunately, as a woman, “she couldn’t get access to the Royal Society’s library in London,” and her ambitions were derailed by a severe health crisis. Lovelace died of cancer at the age of 37, and for some time, her work sank into semi-obscurity. Though some historians have seen her as simply an expositor of Babbage’s work, Wolfram concludes that it was Ada who had the idea of “what the Analytical Engine should be capable of.” Her notes suggested possibilities Babbage had never dreamed. As the Women in Science project puts it, "She rightly saw [the Analytical Engine] as what we would call a general-purpose computer. It was suited for 'developping [sic] and tabulating any function whatever. . . the engine [is] the material expression of any indefinite function of any degree of generality and complexity.' Her Notes anticipate future developments, including computer-generated music."
Einstein saw a public role for scientists in matters social, political, and even economic. In 1949, he published an article in the Monthly Review titled “Why Socialism?” Anticipating his critics, he begins by asking “is it advisable for one who is not an expert on economic and social issues to express views on the subject of socialism?” To which he replies, “I believe for a number of reasons that it is.”
Einstein goes on, sounding something like a combination of Karl Marx and E.O. Wilson, to elaborate the theoretical basis for socialism as he sees it, first describing what Marx called “primitive accumulation” and what the socialist economist Thorstein Veblen called “’the predatory phase’ of human development.”
…most of the major states of history owed their existence to conquest. The conquering peoples established themselves, legally and economically, as the privileged class of the conquered country. They seized for themselves a monopoly of the land ownership and appointed a priesthood from among their own ranks. The priests, in control of education, made the class division of society into a permanent institution and created a system of values by which the people were thenceforth, to a large extent unconsciously, guided in their social behavior.
The science of economics, as it stands, writes Einstein, still belongs “to that phase.” Such “laws as we can derive” from “the observable economic facts… are not applicable to other phases.” These facts simply describe the predatory state of affairs, and Einstein implies that not even economists have sufficient methods to definitively answer the question “why socialism?”—“economic science in its present state can throw little light on the socialist society of the future.” We should not assume, then, he goes on, “that experts are the only ones who have a right to express themselves on questions affecting the organization of society.” Einstein himself doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. He ends his essay, in fact, with a few questions addressing “some extremely difficult socio-political problems,” of the kind that attend every debate about socialism:
…how is it possible, in view of the far-reaching centralization of political and economic power, to prevent bureaucracy from becoming all-powerful and overweening? How can the rights of the individual be protected and therewith a democratic counterweight to the power of bureaucracy be assured?
Nevertheless, Einstein is “convinced” that the only way to eliminate the “grave evils” of capitalism is “through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals.” For Einstein, the “worst evil” of predatory capitalism is the “crippling of individuals” through an educational system that emphasizes an “exaggerated competitive attitude” and trains students “to worship acquisitive success.” But the problems extend far beyond the individual and into the very nature of the political order.
Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands… The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.
The political economy Einstein describes is one often lambasted by right libertarians as an impure variety of crony capitalism, one not worthy of the name, but the physicist is skeptical of the claim, writing “there is no such thing as a pure capitalist society.” Private owners always secure their privileges through the manipulation of the political and educational systems and the mass media.
The predatory situation Einstein observes is one of extreme alienation among all classes; “All human beings, whatever their position in society, are suffering from this process of deterioration. Unknowingly prisoners of their own egotism, they feel insecure, lonely, and deprived of the naïve, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life. Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society.” Einstein believed that devotion should take the form of a socialist economy that promotes both the physical wellbeing and the political rights of everyone. But he did not presume to know exactly what such an economic future would look like, nor how it might come into being. Read his full essay, "Why Socialism?" here.
We all operate at different levels of ambition: some just want to get by and enjoy themselves, while others strive to make achievements with as long-lasting an impact on humanity as possible. If we think of candidates for the latter category, Charles Darwin may well come to mind, at least in the sense that the work he did as a naturalist, and more so the theory of evolution that came out of it, has ensured that we remember his name well over a century after his death and will surely continue to do so centuries hence. But research into Darwin's working life suggests something less than workaholism — and indeed, that he put in a fraction of the number of hours we associate with serious ambition.
"After his morning walk and breakfast, Darwin was in his study by 8 and worked a steady hour and a half," writes Nautilus' Alex Soojung-kim Pang. "At 9:30 he would read the morning mail and write letters. At 10:30, Darwin returned to more serious work, sometimes moving to his aviary, greenhouse, or one of several other buildings where he conducted his experiments. By noon, he would declare, 'I’ve done a good day’s work,' and set out on a long walk." After this walk he would answer letters, take a nap, take another walk, go back to his study, and then have dinner with the family. Darwin typically got to bed, according to a daily schedule drawn from his son Francis' reminiscences of his father, by 10:30.
"On this schedule he wrote 19 books, including technical volumes on climbing plants, barnacles, and other subjects," writes Pang, and of course not failing to mention "The Origin of Species, probably the single most famous book in the history of science, and a book that still affects the way we think about nature and ourselves." Another textually prolific Victorian Englishman named Charles, adhering to a similarly non-life-consuming work routine, managed to produce — in addition to tireless letter-writing and campaigning for social reform — hundreds of short stories and articles, five novellas, and fifteen novels including Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations.
"After an early life burning the midnight oil," writes Pang, Charles Dickens "settled into a schedule as 'methodical or orderly' as a 'city clerk,' his son Charley said. Dickens shut himself in his study from 9 until 2, with a break for lunch. Most of his novels were serialized in magazines, and Dickens was rarely more than a chapter or two ahead of the illustrators and printer. Nonetheless, after five hours, Dickens was done for the day." Pang finds that may other successful writers have kept similarly restrained work schedules, from Anthony Trollope to Alice Munro, Somerset Maugham to Gabriel García Márquez, Saul Bellow to Stephen King. He notes similar habits in science and mathematics as well, including Henri Poincaré and G.H. Hardy.
Research by Pang and others into work habits and productivity have recently drawn a great deal of attention, pointing as it does to the question of whether we might all consider working less in order to work better. "Even if you enjoy your job and work long hours voluntarily, you’re simply more likely to make mistakes when you’re tired," writes the Harvard Business Review's Sarah Green Carmichael. What's more, "work too hard and you also lose sight of the bigger picture. Research has suggested that as we burn out, we have a greater tendency to get lost in the weeds." This discovery actually dates back to Darwin and Dickens' 19th century: "When organized labor first compelled factory owners to limit workdays to 10 (and then eight) hours, management was surprised to discover that output actually increased – and that expensive mistakes and accidents decreased."
This goes just as much for academics, whose workweeks, "as long as they are, are not nearly as lengthy as those on Wall Street (yet)," writes Times Higher Education's David Matthews in a piece on the research of University of Pennsylvania professor (and ex-Goldman Sachs banker) Alexandra Michel. "Four hours a day is probably the limit for those looking to do genuinely original research, she says. In her experience, the only people who have avoided burnout and achieved some sort of balance in their lives are those sticking to this kind of schedule." Michel finds that "because academics do not have their hours strictly defined and regulated (as manual workers do), 'other controls take over. These controls are peer pressure.'" So at least we know the first step on the journey toward viable work habits: regarding the likes of Darwin and Dickens as your peers.
A popular thought experiment asks us to imagine an advanced alien species arriving on Earth, not in an H.G. Wells-style invasion, but as advanced, bemused, and benevolent observers. “Wouldn’t they be appalled,” we wonder, “shocked, confused at how backward we are?” It’s a purely rhetorical device—the secular equivalent of taking a “god’s eye view” of human folly. Few people seriously entertain the possibility in polite company. Unless they work at NASA or the SETI program.
In 1977, upon the launching of Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, a committee working under Carl Sagan produced the so-called “Golden Records,” actual phonographic LPs made of copper containing “a collection of sounds and images,” writes Joss Fong at Vox, “that will probably outlast all human artifacts on Earth.” While they weren’t preparing for a visitation on Earth, they did—relying not on wishful thinking but on the controversial Drake Equation—fully expect that other technological civilizations might well exist in the cosmos, and assumed a likelihood we might encounter one, at least via remote.
Sagan tasked himself with compiling what he called a “bottle” in “the cosmic ocean,” and something of a time capsule of humanity. Over a year’s time, Sagan and his team collected 116 images and diagrams, natural sounds, spoken greetings in 55 languages, printed messages, and musical selections from around the world--things that would communicate to aliens what our human civilization is essentially all about. The images were encoded onto the records in black and white (you can see them all in the Vox video above in color). The audio, which you can play in its entirety below, was etched into the surface of the record. On the cover were etched a series of pictographic instructions for how to play and decode its contents. (Scroll over the interactive image at the top to see each symbol explained.)
Fong outlines those contents, writing, “any aliens who come across the Golden Record are in for a treat.” That is, if they are able to make sense of it and don’t find us horribly backward. Among the audio selections are greetings from then-UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, whale songs, Bach’s Brandenberg Concerto No. 2 in F, Senegalese percussion, Aborigine songs, Peruvian panpipes and drums, Navajo chant, Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night” (playing in the Vox video), more Bach, Beethoven, and “Johnny B. Goode.” Challenged over including “adolescent” rock and roll, Sagan replied, “there are a lot of adolescents on the planet.” The Beatles reportedly wanted to contribute “Here Comes the Sun,” but their record company wouldn’t allow it, presumably fearing copyright infringement from aliens.
Also contained in the spacefaring archive is a message from then-president Jimmy Carter, who writes optimistically, “We are a community of 240 million human beings among the more than 4 billion who inhabit planet Earth. We human beings are still divided into nation states, but these states are rapidly becoming a single global civilization.” The messages on Voyagers 1 and 2, Carter forecasts, are “likely to survive a billion years into our future, when our civilization is profoundly altered and the surface of the Earth may be vastly changed.” The team chose not to include images of war and human cruelty.
We only have a few years left to find out whether either Voyager will encounter other beings. “Incredibly,” writes Fong, the probes “are still communicating with Earth—they aren’t expected to lose power until the 2020s.” It seems even more incredible, forty years later, when we consider their primitive technology: “an 8-track memory system and onboard computers that are thousands of times weaker than the phone in your pocket.”
The Voyagers were not the first probes sent to interstellar space. Pioneer 10 and 11 were launched in 1972 and 1973, each containing a Sagan-designed aluminum plaque with a few simple messages and depictions of a nude man and woman, an addition that scandalized some puritanical critics. NASA has since lost touch with both Pioneers, but you may recall that in 2006, the agency launched the New Horizons probe, which passed by Pluto in 2015 and should reach interstellar space in another thirty years.
Perhaps due to the lack of the departed Sagan’s involvement, the latest “bottle” contains no introductions. But there is time to upload some, and one of the Golden Record team members, Jon Lomberg, wants to do just that, sending a crowdsourced “message to the stars.” Lomberg’s New Horizon’s Message Initiative is a “global project that brings the people of the world together to speak as one.” The limitations of analog technology have made the Golden Record selections seem quite narrow from our data-saturated point of view. The new message might contain almost anything we can imagine. Visit the project's site to sign the petition, donate, and consider, just what would you want an alien civilization to hear, see, and understand about the best of humanity circa 2017?
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Open Culture editor Dan Colman scours the web for the best educational media. He finds the free courses and audio books you need, the language lessons & movies you want, and plenty of enlightenment in between.